New York schools chancellor says Atlanta’s test scandal couldn’t happen here

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Bloomberg and Walcott in Queens. (Dana Rubinstein)
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"We do not have the type of problems that's been identified in Atlanta," schools chancellor Dennis Walcott said today, after WCBS's Rich Lamb asked him if the widespread test-score manipulation that recently resulted in the indictment of 35 Atlanta educators could happen here in New York City.

Last week, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Atlanta's school district, which like New York City's under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has put a greater emphasis on student testing in recent years, and has evaluated its teachers and principals based upon those test scores.

While for years there had been rumors and intimations of test-score manipulation in pursuit of career advancement and financial incentives, the test fraud in Atlanta only came to light after then-Georgia governor Sonny Perdue appointed two special prosecutors to the task in 2010.

"You have not seen any indications of that type of issue here in New York City," said Walcott today. "Probably you will not see that type of issue, because we are always on top of it. But you will always see a case here, a case there. And if we see or hear about a case, we report it to the authorities."

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Walcott said that the city has sought to avoid that sort of test manipulation by, among other things, not allowing teachers to grade the Regents tests that they themselves administer.

Leonie Haimson, an education advocate and the executive director of Class Size Matters, doesn't buy it.

"No one ever looked into the same way it was looked into in Atlanta," she told me.

In a recent blog post, she laid out her argument further:

Under Bloomberg and Klein, the numbers of staff members monitoring test taking has fallen, and the DOE stopped doing the sort of routine erasure and score swing rate analysis which the Board of Ed had done previously. (These methods suggested the anomalies in Atlanta).

Sol Stern relates the case of a Bronx principal whose school's scores jumped in one year to unbelievable levels, leading her to receive a big bonus and honors from Bloomberg & Klein. After that year, the principal retired, and the school’s scores fell sharply again.

Education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in an email to me, "I have heard that NYC dropped the test erasure analysis because it was too expensive."

(I emailed the Department of Education to find out what other measures it takes to prevent test-score manipulation. I'll update this article when I get a response.)

Walcott made his remarks at a press conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Queens, where they announced that the city would 78 new schools in September, and that the administration has opened more new schools than any other mayoral administration in city history.

Many of those schools will be "co-located" with existing ones, a controversial practice that some mayoral contenders have said should be halted.

UPDATE: Adina Lopatin, the department of education's deputy chief academic officer, gave me a call to outline some of the other measures the city takes to prevent test-score manipulation.

Though the city no longer does erasure analysis, Lopatin said that the state started doing it last year. Also, the city requires tests for grades 3 through 8 to be scored outside of the school at regional scoring sites.

"So that means that no teacher is scoring their own kids' exams," she said.

Starting this year, the city is also doing that for high school tests.

The city also sends unannounced monitors to about 10 percent of all test administration sites every year, and closely tracks test materials to prevent teacher or student tampering.